The Atkins Illusion

Many Americans are obsessed with weight loss. Millions of dollars are spent each year on weight loss programs, diet books, diet foods, miracle drinks, and surgeries in order to get our bodies to shed those extra pounds. With the latest resurgence of the popular Atkins diet, also known as the "low-carb diet" or the "protein diet", millions of people are emptying their pocketbooks to jump on board. These high-priced “low-carb” foods, which include “nutrition” bars and ready-to-eat meals along with tons of meat, cheese and dairy products, deny the body proper nutrition. Dr. Atkins has successfully convinced many people that carbohydrates are the enemy, when in fact the body needs carbohydrates more than any other food. While it is important to limit simple carbohydrates like white flour and sugar, complex carbohydrates like whole grains are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which are crucial for good health.

There is also a real danger in excessive protein consumption, which is at the heart of the Atkins diet. Dr. John A. McDougall, author of "The McDougall Plan", and "McDougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss", said the body of a healthy adult man uses less than 20 grams of protein a day. When an individual consumes large amounts of protein, the body does not have the means to store the excess and so it is eliminated by the liver and kidneys. The elimination of this protein overworks these organs, causing damage to organ tissue and proper function. For individuals who already suffer from kidney problems, such as diabetes, the increased stress from a high-protein diet can have serious consequences.

Additionally, the kidneys use minerals from the body to help eliminate this excess protein. The most important mineral that is sacrificed in this process is calcium. Calcium deficiency leads to osteoporosis later in life. McDougall cites a case study of the Bantu tribe in Africa versus a group living in the United States. The Bantus subsist on a low-protein vegetable-based diet and have virtually no cases of osteoporosis, while a genetically related group of people studied in the United States who consumed the typical American diet rich in meat and dairy, had high osteoporosis rates. Native Eskimos who consume a diet extremely high in protein from sea life have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world.

When a person eliminates carbohydrates from his diet, he also eliminates fiber. Fiber is a crucial part of the human diet and it is not found in animal-derived foods. Fiber binds to toxic substances in our bodies and washes them out of our system. It allows for rapid movement of food through the intestines, preventing harmful bacteria from building up due to constipation. Fiber also binds to cholesterol, explaining why a high-fiber diet is associated with healthy cholesterol levels and lower heart attack rates. Fiber is also important in regulating blood sugar by encouraging carbohydrates to be absorbed at a slower rate, which keeps the blood sugar levels balanced. Overall, a person on a low-carb, high-protein diet puts himself at risk for kidney stones, osteoporosis, heart attack, and constipation among other complications.

How can we stay healthy and lose weight? According to McDougall’s research, the diet that best supports health and healing for humans is a pure vegetable diet based around starch foods, with the addition of fresh fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates provide the most efficient and available source of energy for our bodies. They are plentiful in vitamins, minerals, fibers, proteins and essential fats. To deny the body the carbohydrates it needs is irresponsible and dangerous. Eating a variety of whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit, along with eliminating (or at least limiting) one’s intake of saturated fat and cholesterol-laden foods, is an effective way to promote weight loss while providing for the body’s needs.


Facts from this article were taken from:

  1. McDougall, John A. The McDougall Plan. New Win Publishing, Clinton, NJ. 1983.
  2. McDougall, John A. The McDougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss. Penguin Books USA , New York, New York. 1994.